During the summer of 2009, two friends and I journeyed west to Yosemite National Park to spend five days hiking along the John Muir Trail. The third day of our trip was the first day of our five-day backpacking hike from Yosemite National Park to Reds Meadows Campground. The first day started at the Mono Pass Trailhead within Yosemite National Park and took us through three passes and up to almost thirteen thousand feet in elevation before dropping down to Alger Lakes for the night. The following post chronicles the third of three parts of the first day of the backpacking trip. We encountered thunder, rain and sleet on the climb up Parker Peak to Koip Pass before skies cleared as we descended to Alger Lakes for the night.
Even after climbing up to Mono Pass and through Parker Pass, the climb up Parker Peak was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Even with the constant switch-backs the ascent was quite arduous. The switch backs were so steep that when I was on the lower portion and Dave and Jim were just a little distance ahead of me on the upper portion they were already well over my head.
The surrounding landscape appeared as if it were from another planet. Nothing but rusty-red flat rocks surrounded the trail as if the mountain was just a large pile of such rocks gathered up and deposited there by an ancient race of extraterrestrials. There was no vegetation, no rock outcroppings, just the flat rocks for as far as the eye could see up the mountain.
The clouds became darker and more threatening and occasionally I thought I heard thunder in the distance. The dark clouds appeared to be swirling around our location with the occasional views to the east showing sunny skies.
The threatening skies had us all looking upward more often and luckily so too because Dave noticed two golden eagles circling overhead. As we watched these large raptors circling above I noticed a hang glider moving across the skies. I am not certain about anyone else but with the threatening weather moving in, being in a hang glider over a mountain top in a wilderness area would be one of the absolutely last places I would want to be.
Looking back in the direction toward Parker Pass put things in prospective. The ponds and streams we encountered now were just tiny features on the landscape. Parker Pass seemed like only a stone throw away from this height when in reality it would have taken a really good arm to throw a stone that far.
A few cracks of thunder sounded close and soon it started to rain. The temperature decreased rapidly so I stopped and put on my rain jacket. I was hoping my theory of how putting on rain gear reduces the chance of rain held up as well on the west coast as it seems to on the east coast.
During the climb I continuously kept putting my camera in a waterproof stuff sack inside my weather-resistant camera bag since every time I took it out to take a picture the angry skies appeared to chastise me with a clap of thunder. Perhaps taking cameras out of their raingear increases the chance of threatening weather.
My constant picture taking and the colder temperatures slowed my progress up the mountain separating me from Dave and Jim. The weather took a turn for the worse and a cold rain started to fall. The wet weather jolted Jim into hyperdrive and soon the three of us were scattered about along the trail up Parker Peak.
When the most arduous climbing ceased the rain changed to sleet. Dave stopped to put on his rain pants and I finally caught up to him. I decided to put my rain pants on too but unfortunately that required me to take my boots off since my Golite Reed rain pants do not fit over my boots. Unfortunately at this point my hiking pants were quite wet and my body temperature plummeted to the point where I started experiencing chills. Once we got our rain gear on and began hiking again I quickly warmed up but then I started to get a headache again.
Soon Dave and I caught up to Jim while he was putting his rain pants on along the trail. The combined power of all three of us putting on our rain gear must have overcome the persistent threatening weather as soon the sleet tapered off. When we arrived at Koip Pass the dark threatening clouds swirled overhead but the rain/sleet had nearly stopped.
We did not linger in the pass long given the dark clouds swirling around us. We took the obligatory photographs and then headed southeast down the trail. Unlike along the trail on the climb to the pass there were small scattered patches of vegetation here. Many had small yellow flowers but the cool temperatures and wet conditions kept us from examining them any further.
Before we even started to descend from the pass, sunshine worked its way through the few slivers of open sky appearing in the clouds. The brief periods of sunshine were a welcome relief from the cooler temperatures and soon Jim was shedding his rain gear. Dave and I waited a little longer to take off our rain gear fearing the rain would soon return.
The sunshine lit up the valley below bringing the Alger Lakes and the surrounding area into dramatic focus. The view would remain unaltered for the next two hours as we descended from the pass toward our overnight campsite near the two southern Alger Lakes.
Of the three Alger Lakes, the northern-most one remained aloof as it was further from the other two with it being cradled between two shoulders of Blacktop Peak. The southern lakes were separated by only a peninsula between the two. Just a small stream separated the two ponds at the northern edge of the peninsula; during high water this stream probably flooded to become a full-fledged channel between the two sibling lakes.
Looking at this outstanding view we decided to head for the peninsula as a likely camping site for the evening. With tree cover, a close proximity to water and what probably should be an outstanding view we could not think of a better spot to stay the night.
The hike down was much like the one up in reverse. The trail meandered down the mountain pass extensively using switchbacks. The surrounding terrain was mostly rust-colored rocks with little vegetation. And the sun was breaking through the clouds more and more as we descended toward those ever present lakes in the distance.
As I descended my headache was getting worse. I started to think it might be altitude sickness with a possible contribution of some stress from the threatening weather and being pummeled by sleet at the end of July. I constantly suckled on the bite valve of my hydration bladder to ensure dehydration would not be another contributing factor.
The increasing pain of the headache combined with my constant photograph taking left me falling farther behind Dave and Jim. So when I heard these loud, high-pitched squeaks there was no one around to consult on their origin. My assumption was that they were the vocalization of a small lagomorph called the American pika. I scanned the scree hoping to get a glimpse of this small mammal as I attempted to catch up with my two companions.
Unfortunately I never got to see a pika. But since these little critters are becoming increasingly threatened due to the affects of global warming I now have an incentive to return to this area (or another mountainous region of the western US where they are located) to get another chance, before it is too late.
Finally we had descended enough that the talus slopes and the resident pikas were left behind as we transitioned to an alpine meadow instead. Here scattered vegetation was more frequent but despite our reduced elevation the views of the surrounding landscape were no less stunning. The landscape must have been so stunning that at one point we found ourselves no longer following the trail. Instead of relocating the trail, we decided to bushwhack (!) directly to the peninsula on Alger Lakes since it was still visible before us due to the sloping terrain.
Too bad I did not get to enjoy my only bushwhacking experience in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains as at this point my headache had easily progressed to the worst one I had ever experienced. At one point we stopped to rest since my head was starting to throb so much I was actually feeling sick to my stomach. Having a large nail pounded into one’s forehead could not have felt any worse.
It became increasingly harder for me to keep up with Dave and Jim even at a reduced pace. As I limped along feeling the throbbing of my head combined with its induced nausea I completely stopped taking photographs as we approached the two lower Alger Lakes.
When we finally arrived at the stream separating us from the peninsula I was ready to collapse but somehow I was able to keep it together until crossing and locating an acceptable camping site nestled within the scattered pine trees. When we decided on the campsite I found a flat area under the shade of a pine tree and collapsed into a semi-fetal position for much of the late afternoon.
Not even the presence of Clark’s Nutcrackers could rouse me from my headache-induced lack of activity for long. There were a few attempts to get up and move around or set up my tarp but all of them were short-lived as the throbbing of my head soon brought me back to my same semi-fetal state within the cool shade of that wonderful pine tree.
It was not until Dave and Jim were in the middle of making their dinner that Dave’s frustration (or concern) with my state of inactivity bubbled over.
“Dan, get up and take care of yourself! It’s going to be dark soon and it’s not going to get any easier!” he said gesturing with his vertically oriented open hand.
When I joined Dave and Jim in the kitchen area my headache was no better so I decided to avoid whatever concoction I was planning for dinner and fished out an old emergency Lipton instant chicken soup from my bear canister for dinner. After finishing the soup I felt much better with my headache having dissipated to a great extent. I still did not feel up to a full meal but I nibbled and snacked on a few articles of food before deciding to call it a night.
I crawled under my trap early and whether due to the arduous day’s hike or the stress of the earlier piercing headache I slept deeply and soundly the entire night.
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